EDITOR’S NOTE — Across the nation, children and teens are plagued by a host of escalating tragedies. In this series, we look at several issues facing America’s endangered youth and offer ways you and your church can help care for the next generation. For more stories in this series, click here.
Lisa Laumann Billings said the only thing anorexia “wants from you is to put a headstone on you.”
She said that as a psychologist, but she also said it as a mom. Five days after Christmas in 2021, her 23-year-old daughter Maddie died after a long struggle with the disease.
Throughout Maddie’s youth, her family had done everything they could to help her, exhausting all outpatient and inpatient conventional eating disorder treatment programs.
“It is a very devious and dangerous disease,” Billings said, according to KUSA-TV 9News.
Billings’ daughter is far from the only victim.
Today’s youth, living in a media-driven society obsessed with beauty, weight and body image, are dying from eating disorders as they struggle to fit into society’s perception of the perfect body.
Magazines, internet, television, movies and social media bombard the brains of today’s teenagers, telling them that a thin body brings beauty, happiness, power and control to their lives. Media uses super thin models to sell clothes, makeup and diet pills to our nation’s young.
During the pandemic, teens’ use of social media went up, according to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. While that offered connection in a disconnected time, it also ratcheted up their viewing of images of peers and influencers, which led to more body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, reported the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
In trying to pursue these unrealistic and often airbrushed physical ideals, today’s youth are endangered by eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Popular singer-songwriter Karen Carpenter brought anorexia to the public’s awareness with her untimely death in 1983. She died from a sudden heart attack brought about by anorexia.
Carpenter had deep insecurities about her weight and appearance, and she starved herself. Her weight dropped to 90 pounds. After collapsing on stage in 1975, she began a cycle of hospitalization and recovery, then losing weight and collapsing again. That lasted for seven years until she died at the young age of 32.
Among teenagers, anorexia is the third most common chronic disease. Females age 15 to 24 who are affected by anorexia are 12 times more likely to die from the disorder than from any other cause, according to The American Journal of Psychiatry. But the struggle with anorexia is not specific to females — nearly one in three people struggling with an eating disorder is male, the National Eating Disorders Association reported.
Sixty percent of anorexia-related deaths are attributed to sudden cardiac arrest, organ failure or suicide, according to The Lancet.
When a teen suffers from anorexia, he or she will diet severely and lose weight quickly. A teen experiencing bulimia will eat a lot, then purge by vomiting or abusing laxative and diuretics. Both eating disorders are potentially life-threatening conditions.
The late Princess Diana brought bulimia to the world’s attention. In an interview, she told Vogue Magazine: “I had bulimia for a number of years … You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable. You fill your stomach up four or five times a day… and it gives you a feeling of comfort … then you bring it all up again.”
She noted that with bulimia she could maintain her weight while not losing significant weight, and thus keep her disease secret.
The cycle of bingeing and purging damages a body and can cause heart problems, tears in the esophagus lining, acid reflux, digestive and hormonal problems, mouth and tooth damage and other issues.
It is also linked to mental health problems including anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts or actions.
Eating disorders are increasing
In today’s beauty- and weight-obsessed world, eating disorders are reaching epidemic proportions. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that “weekly visits to the ER among adolescent girls (ages 12-17) with eating disorders doubled during 2020, 2021, and January 2022 compared to 2019.”
Not only that, the CDC reported that “hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under age 12 increased by 119% in less than a decade.”
How churches can help
Young people who are suffering from potentially devastating eating disorders may be sitting in your church pews. They may or may not show symptoms of the disease. What can you and your church do to address these dangerous diseases?
Here are a few suggestions:
— Make church and home into places where children and youth can find unconditional love, compassion, acceptance, caring, Biblical wisdom and freedom from the pressure and desire to be “perfect.”
— From the pulpit preach and teach that while people judge each other by outward appearance, the Lord looks at a person’s heart, and that is much more important (1 Samuel 7).
— Be a congregation that listens when its youth speak.
— Be attentive to situations where eating disorders can take root. This can include the following:
- Youth striving for perfection and control in all areas of life.
- Youth suffering from overwhelming physical, emotional, mental or spiritual stress,
- Families who encourage and expect unusually high performance from children in academia, sports and other areas.
- Families who are experiencing loss or trauma and major life changes.
— Bring in special speakers to alert parents and youth to the problem and escalation of eating disorders.
— Research and study eating disorders. Strive to understand the disease, learn the symptoms that may suggest anorexia or bulimia and provide youth with pastoral and professional counseling if you suspect they need help.
— Keep an up-to-date list of resources for youth pastors and parents to use as they seek help for children with eating disorders. If possible, help them financially if church families need expensive treatments for their children.
— Train church youth workers to be alert to and minister specifically to youth who may have eating disorders.
— Pray for and with church youth and their families.
To learn more about eating disorders, see:
To learn how to talk with teens about eating disorders, see:
To learn about the symptoms of eating disorders, see: